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HAPPY *!!#*@#! NEW YEAR!

10 January 2012 | Posted in Birds ,

Author Mike Russell

In the season of hope, reconciliation and good wishes for all mankind, 2012 started as the old year ended… fractious, tetchy and confrontational and this all took place while enjoying the gentle pastime of birdwatching!

Taking an opportunity while the sun shone over the New Year holiday, I popped down to Widewater at Shoreham to see a pair of snow buntings that had been entertaining birders for some weeks. These brightly coloured little birds breed in the arctic and tundra areas, with a few pairs even breeding in Scotland, and every now and again they come south and occasionally visit Sussex. Thanks to a local Sussex birder and all-round good bloke Bernie Forbes who put down seed for them, they have hung around quite happily for over a month.

snow bunting / Dave Potter

Having found them where they were supposed to be, I was gradually joined by a few other birders and we were able to enjoy very close views of them. One of the assembled company was just about to take a photo when a guy came ambling along the beach with his dog, oblivious to the uniformed clad, armed to the teeth with cameras, binoculars and telescopes birders just a few yards away. Inevitably as the camera was about to click the dog nearly trod on the birds and off they went.

A grumpy "Thanks a lot mate" floated across the beach from one of the assembled birders followed by a returned "What's your problem?" The situation and language soon deteriorated but thankfully didn't come to blows. Looking at the Sussex Ornithological Society website later, it seems that this wasn't the only dog walker/birdwatcher confrontation that day and there were a number of postings on the site by birders bemoaning inconsiderate dog owners.

Now, being a birder myself it is obviously frustrating when the birds you are watching suddenly disappear through somebody else's actions but, taking, a step back, have we really got the right to get stroppy with them? Widewater is a very popular public place and, on a nice day, is full of dog walkers, cyclists, joggers, windsurfers, birdwatchers and general strollers. Many locals use it everyday and may not take kindly to being berated by a stranger who, once they have ticked off the bird, might never been seen again. It highlights an issue that Widewater, like many places in the south east exemplifies, lots of people with different interests competing for a diminishing public space.

It is an extraordinarily difficult situation to manage and the multiple use of Widewater has been going on for many years. These altercations between the birders and dog walkers do make it more difficult to get over how important the wildlife interest of this area is. By trying to engage with dog walkers, and others, you actually find that many, if not most, will be interested, even more so if you can let them look through your bins or telescope. It helps diffuse an annoying situation and might make people think about wildlife a bit more. That has definitely been my experience with the short-eared owls at Beeding Brooks, where many of the locals seem very proud of 'their' owls.

So, if you are a birder and the object of your interest is rapidly disappearing into the distance due to a canine interloper, take a deep breath, engage the owner in conversation, point out what you were looking at and you never know, you might set someone on the road to enlightenment.

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  • Mike Camier:

    11 Jan 2012 20:13:27

    A well written and balanced post. As a dog walker, wildlife watcher, photographer, teacher and above all countryman, I feel that Mike has ‘hit the nail on the head’. Each of us, whatever our interest seem to be competing for the small public space available; we should inform and encourage others to participate in our interests so that we can share what fantastic resources we have.

    As a dog walker, I share my walk with my dogs (trained) and the wildlife and countryside around me; like most people sadly I just do not have the time to focus on one thing most of the time. Unfortunately this often precludes me from many reserves, but with a little research and a good map, it is possible to experience the wonders of our countryside.

    Can specialisation bring narrow mindedness? Perhaps, but there is more to our wildlife and conservation than just a tick in a box.

  • 14 Jan 2012 20:50:48

    I also went and took pics of the Snow Buntings… and I also came across a very inconsiderate dog walker. I was sitting on the single with camera and large lens pointed forward waiting as the Snow Buntings came nearer and nearer. Female with 3 dogs appeared with one dog rushing up to me. I expressed my annoyance to no avail.

    Conversely an elderly gentleman lifted his dog over the barrier… and then, with obvious difficulty, he climbed over so as not to disturb me. I advised him how grateful I was and we chatted for about 10 minutes… He could have taught the lady a thing or two about considerate behaviour!

  • Dawn Ashdown:

    15 Jan 2012 10:30:25

    I’m a dog walker that has become a bird watcher through walking my dogs at Widewater. I wanted to know what these funky looking birds were so borrowed my dad’s binoculars. They were Little Grebes and I was hooked. I still regularly walk my dogs at Widewater and took them both to see the Snow Buntings – they were more interested in the waves than the birds. My dogs are well trained but one of them will say hello to every human she meets no matter what. It’s the way of a spaniel I’m afraid. Having said that it’s fairly obvious that 20 people standing with cameras and scopes means something is afoot and I’d reel the dogs in and take them past. And ask someone what they were all looking at. It’s about sharing and mutual respect. Something there is less and less of these days unfortunately.

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